Our story begins on January 21st, 2014.
The Roosters were premiers, Hawthorn had climbed the mountain to the first of its three consecutive flags, and I was still playing League of Legends. On this apocalyptically warm summer's day, Blizzard released a quaint little card game, called Hearthstone.
We didn't know it at the time, and it'd be a slow burn, but the seeds were sown in that moment for a brand new generation of online trading card game simulators.
At the time of it's release, card game simulators online were dry, by-the-book affairs. The big fish at the time was Magic the Gathering Online - a functional, joyless reproduction of the original card game in a digital space.
Don't even ask what Konami and YGO were doing at the time. There's a dated review for the last standalone game they released, Legacy of the Duelist. Spoiler alert, it wasn't very good. And the game was terrible as well.
Little by little, the industry started to wake up. First came the innovators, like Duelyst, who died because they weren't one of the big three. Lots of indie developers made card battlers, or card construction games - but the secret ingredient was production value. Hearthstone had showed the value of sparkly visuals, wooshy sound effects, and simplified gameplay.
After getting belted in the digital TCG space for many moons, Wizards of the Coast snapped awake in 2018 and released Magic the Gathering: Arena. A buttery smooth, highly polished iteration of the tabletop giant saw the company take a huge leap forward - and more importantly, so did Hasbro's profit margins. Not soon after, Hasbro invited WoTC to take a seat at the table of tier one organisations under its huge umbrella.
But we're here to talk about YGO Master Duel, so why the history lesson?
Because it's important to understand that nothing happens in a vaccuum. Monolithic entities like Konami, WoTC, and the Pokemon Company, learn from each other. They adapt each other's ideas - and evolve as a pack. Konami's decision to eschew another dreadful standalone unsupported video game and instead release a definitive, highly polished Yu-Gi-Oh! simulator, proves the theory.
But I'm not here to get cynical or melodramatic. I'm here to tell you that YGO Master Duel is the best way to play, ever. I don't need ad revenue, so you can stop reading at this point if you want.
I've recently started playing paper Yugioh (I'm not writing it's proper name anymore) and a big part of that decision was discovering Master Duel. I've spoken with a lot of players locally - a number of them are returning players who rediscovered their love for the game because of Master Duel. Yugioh in general is seeing a resurgence, both locally, and globally, as a result of Konami finally coming to the table.
(And also, maybe, partially because Magic is starting to slip. Not a lot, just a little.)
Regardless of your interest in the game, you need to understand Yugioh is fast-paced and complex. Games of "modern" Yugioh don't last more than a handful of turns. Each individual card is a powerhouse, capable of multiple different interactions.
Despite this, from the moment you step into Master Duel, it's not overwhelming. The visuals are clean, crisp, and clear - and the indicators for when you can take an action, are bright and obvious. There's a robust tutorial which shows players the basics, and introduces advanced mechanics at a slow and steady pace, which feels right for the amount of information you'll need over the course of a game.
Outside of the tutorial, there's also a large chunk of single player content which introduces players to archetypes, which are the building blocks of modern Yugioh decks. Old and new players alike will find cards and decks which appeal to their playstyle. This, to me, is the DNA of Yugioh - finding a deck that suits your playstyle, and developing your skills to take on all comers.
Once you find an archetype (or combination of archetypes) that you want to build a deck around, you'll find the deckbuilding interface snappy and efficient. Cards go from your pool into your deck with a satisfying "flick" noise, and it's very clear what cards you have, and what you don't. The tools for searching cards are robust, allowing you to switch between all cards in the game and cards in your collection, along with search tools that allow you to be ultra-specific when looking for a particular type of card - even if you don't know precisely what you're looking for.
The game even ties into Konami's companion app, Yugioh Neuron, for paper play, allowing you to export decklists. You can't import decklists, though, which makes sense to me, as that would mean caring about third parties. Which, as we've established, get between Konami and the business of making money. It is still a pain point when you see a cool decklist online, and wish to take it for yourself, only to realise you're going to have invest in a second monitor, or wear out your alt and tab keys. Good luck on mobile.
When you've built up your collection, and learned how to play the game in solo mode, it's time to test your mettle. Much like the games that came before it, Konami understands the importance of making it simple to jump in. Two clicks, and a short wait, and you are playing Yugioh, my friend.
The main way to play is "ranked" play, which is standard fare for online games. You have a rank, winning games makes your rank go up, losing makes your rank go down. It is where the majority of players are, and where you'll get the most authentic Yugioh experience, so it's where I spent the majority of my time. If you accept that the reason you play ranked is so you can play the game against a variety of opponents and build your skills, as opposed to making a little logo change colour like a hamster moving a wheel, you'll have a much nicer time.
There is also a casual game mode, but rewards are disabled - so it's really only for testing new decks, or playing fun decks against people that are too anxious to play the ranked game mode. Disabling the rewards is really about having all the player-base in one area, because that means you'll be able to match players quickly, increasing player retention, and keeping the cash flowing.
In addition to these two modes, there are also events every so often, which limit the card pool to challenge the playerbase to try specific decks, or play in specific ways. Sometimes there are restrictions on what monsters players can summon from the extra deck. Or limiting the pool to only allow certain iconic archetypes (ever heard of Blue-eyes White Dragon) to be played. As an incentive, these events offer rich player rewards such as gems, crafting points and alterations to the duel field.
Outside of matchmaking, if you want to play with your friends, or set up a tournament, you can do that too. Master Duel gives players the ability to make duel rooms, where you can have multiple simultaneous games going. Players can spectate each other, move from table to table without much hassle, and play several games without needing to close and remake a game or a room.
As with any live service, there are mechanisms to increase player retention. There's a battle pass, with a free and premium version, and quests based around achieving in-game targets, such as winning a game, playing spell and trap cards, and summoning monsters in a specific way. These all reward gems, the game's in-game currency, which is where we have to talk about the game's economy.
The end goal in Master Duel is to acquire cards, to put in decks. There are several ways you can accomplish this.
The first way is by playing through the solo mode. You'll often be rewarded with cards of varying rarities. It's important to understand, though, that Konami is not a charity. They will not give you important, rare cards for free.
Secondly, you can open legacy packs. Every so often, when playing through solo and ranked play, you'll be rewarded with a number of legacy packs. Each legacy pack contains two cards. However, the cards you get are old and have niche usefulness at most. Again, you will not get the important staple cards from these packs.
Finally, there's using in-game currency (gems) to buy cards. Master Duel is unusual amongst free-to-play titles in that the free currency is also the paid currency.
This one's a little bit more complex than the others. A booster pack costs you 100 gems, and you can buy a single pack, or ten packs. There's the default pack, which can open a copy of any card in the game. Then there's selection packs, which cover a specificing grouping of archetypes, centered around a visual or gameplay theme - big robots, fairies or sea monsters, as very generic examples.
You'll want to open 10 packs at a time, because when you buy 10 packs at once, you are guaranteed a super rare. You're also guaranteed an ultra rare in every 20 packs, though the way Master Duel goes about informing you about your ultra rare is manipulative.
Konami also employs the traditional layer of real money obfuscation in order to hide the true cost of buying gems. You buy them in unusual amounts in order to drive players towards the most expensive bundle of gems.
I did some "exhaustive" research (i.e, I used google), and confirmed that the average price for 10 packs varies from $20 - $30 AUD, depending on the size of your bundle.
Additionally, when you open 10 packs and don't open an ultra rare, you'll be treated to this pop-up, telling you that you just need to buy another 10-pack and you'll get the ultra rare you really need, really hammering you to dig just a little deeper and buy that last 10-pack. Which, as we've established, is not inexpensive.
To be fair, the game provides a number of cost-effective bundles for new players. These include a meta-relevant ultra rare card and 10 packs for just under the normal rate. There are a number of these bundles with different staple cards on offer.
The problems really start when you begin to build decks in Master Duel. Konami understands that in order to make sure they extract as much money out of people, even those who don't want to play the latest, greatest, and best deck, they need to articially engineer scenarios that bottleneck the speed of card acquisition in order to keep the players on the platform.
Master Duel has four tiers of rarity. Common, rare, super rare, and ultra rare. Just park this in the back of your mind for now.
Regardless of the deck you choose to play, at least some of the cards in your deck will be ultra rare. Because of the number of cards in the pool, the chance of you opening a card you need is extremely unlikely. Selection packs help with this, but not every ultra rare card you need is in a selection pack.
To deal with this, Konami has a crafting system to make cards you need. Through playing the game and dismantling extra cards you don't need, you generate crafting points. Where it gets deliberately rubbish, is in the currency you use to make cards.
Rather than have a single pool of crafting points you use, instead you have four different amounts - one for each rarity. So to craft a card of common rarity, you have to dismantle cards of the same rarity. As a result, you'll end up with thousands of unusable common and rare points, and never enough ultra rare points.
The bottleneck occurs because the vast majority of cards that drive a deck are ultra-rare. These include key extra-deck monsters, meta-staple cards, and main-deck utility monsters. It doesn't matter if the cards have since been made obsolete by the passage of time, or if the deck is garbage - a number of the cards will be arbitrarily set at ultra rare, to drive you to open packs, and spend money when you run out of crafting points.
And the exchange rate is (predictably) slanted in favour of the house. Dismantling a card will give you 10 points (depending on the finish, there's additional cosmetic rarities, because of course there are) and crafting a card takes 30. This is fine at common and rare levels, but when you're getting maybe one or two ultra rares from $25 of expenditure, that feels predatory to me.
None of this is particularly shocking - Konami is pure evil. And my hypocritical stripes are definitely showing, because I have bought gems and participated in the circus.
On balance, though, the good does outweigh the bad. Yugioh, as a card game, is a complex layer cake of mechanics. The punchy trifecta of sound, visuals and gameplay is addictive. If you can keep your head and not rush to the store every time daddy Konami releases yet another selection pack full of hard-to-get-but-mandatory ultra rare cards, you'll really enjoy this ultra-modern iteration of Yugioh.
Catch you next time,
Critical Information Summary:
Review Platform: PC
Cost (At Time of Publish): Free To Play
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